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Telemedicine institute trains doctors, helps patients in remote areas

To Dr. Ronald S. Weinstein, a doctor’s eyes and ears are as important as instruments or tests.

A patient’s tone and body language can say as much as his or her words, he said, and eye contact and seeing that a doctor is paying attention establishes trust for the patient.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that doctor and patient have to be in the same place, said Weinstein, director of the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s Arizona Telemedicine Program.

Illustrating his point, he made those observations from Tucson by videoconference to the Institute for Advanced Telemedicine and Telehealth, which UA officials unveiled recently in downtown Phoenix.

The facility, also known as the T-Health Institute, will help train doctors in telemedicine and allow practitioners to treat patients in rural communities.

It’s located on the campus of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University and features telemedicine examination rooms and conference rooms. Its centerpiece: an amphitheater featuring 12 screens that can connect people from different rooms at the institute and sites around the state.

“We’re creating the first health care command center,” Weinstein said. “Any doctor in the state can see a patient or provide a service over the network.”

He said that practitioners in many health care specialties such as dermatology and psychiatry are concentrated in large cities, and being able to bring them to remote areas through telemedicine saves time and lowers transportation costs for both doctor and patient.

Senate President Bob Burns, who is co-chairman of the Arizona Telemedicine Council, got involved when he served on the House Appropriations Committee that approved funding to establish the program in 1996. Originally providing telemedicine services to eight rural sites, the program now has 171 clinics in its network.

“Having the institute helps to make it so that these doctors, nurses, students and whoever else can better understand the telemedicine system and take advantage of the tools that are available to them,” Burns said in a telephone interview.

Jon Linkous, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based American Telemedicine Association, said that Arizona is a leader in the field because of the different types of services provided over its telemedicine network, the number of health care providers who have embraced it and the continued support it receives from the state Legislature.

“Although it’s headquartered out of University of Arizona, there are a lot of other institutions equally involved in providing services back and forth,” he said.

Linkous said that the new institute will make Arizona’s telemedicine network stronger and help medical students get better acquainted with the technology.

“It increases access to care whether you are living in an urban center or a remote rural area,” he said. “Access to many types of doctors and specialists is extremely important and increasingly hard to get.”

Weinstein said the T-Health Institute also will allow teams of medical, nursing and pharmacy students to collaborate, addressing the challenge of miscommuncation that is a leading cause of medical errors.

“I think down the road there will be enormous efforts to align nursing, medical and pharmaceutical education,” he said. “So we are very actively designing a curriculum of the future.”

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